Saturday, December 2, 2023

China continuing paranoia about a stateless Buddhist monk

By Mayank Chhaya
The Chinese Communist Party’s express resolve to “ensure that the voice and image” of the Dalai Lama is neither heard nor seen betrays a strange paranoia about a stateless Buddhist monk.

Unless there is some brilliant and deep Chinese statecraft behind continuing to paint Dalai Lama as the bogeyman, it is hard to fathom the level of sustained disaffection for him. It is a measure of how concerned Beijing remains about the Dalai Lama’s apparently undiminished, and some might even say growing, stature among the Tibetan people that the party’s Tibet chief, Chen Quanguo’s has offered a particularly harsh prescription against him in Tibet. Chen’s comments in the party’s influential journal Qiushi has been quoted in a Reuters’ story by Ben Blanchard from Beijing about how China wants to “stamp out the Dalai Lama’s voice in Tibet.”

“Strike hard against the reactionary propaganda of the splittists from entering Tibet,” Chen has been quoted as saying. “Work hard to ensure that the voice and image of the party is heard and seen over the vast expanses (of Tibet) … and that the voice and image of the enemy forces and the Dalai clique are neither seen nor heard,” he writes.

The way this objective is to be achieved is, reports Reuters, by “confiscating illegal satellite dishes, increasing monitoring of online content and making sure all telephone and internet users are registered using their real names.”

It is instructive that the passage of nearly five and half decades since his exile from his homeland does not seem to have brought Beijing any closer to ending his enduring appeal for the Tibetan people. When he was forced into exile, he was barely 24 years old who was at best an exotic curiosity for most of the world. At 78, he is one of the most compelling and fascinating examples of the power of a single individual, one who has officially given up all formal political powers.

Less than six months away from the 55th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in India in April, 1959, the Chinese Communist Party feels compelled to deal with the looming presence of the Dalai Lama with such urgency. During intervening decades since the People’s Liberation Army walked into Tibet and annexed it without much resistance, the world has undergone unthinkable transformation, not the least of it being China’s extraordinary rise as an economic superpower.

Beijing has pulled out all stops to complete Tibet’s territorial integration into China in the past decades even while it has struggled desperately to achieve some measure of cultural and demographic assimilation of the Tibetan people.

One would think that five and half a decades are a long enough time for a country as ideologically determined in 1959 and economically and militarily successful in 2013 to erase all the influence and appeal of a single, stateless, Buddhist monk on generations of Tibetans who have grown up without any immediate reference to the Dalai Lama. It seems one would be completely wrong to think that.

The Sino-Tibetan conflict is one of history’s great and most intractable standoffs, essentially between a single individual and a mighty power. It is from this perspective the latest moves to neutralize his influence are both amusing and instructive.

There is no parallel in recent history of a single individual without state power, military might and economic muscle continuing to shake a de facto second superpower purely by the force of his presence and his philosophy of compassion and non-violence. Gandhi may come to many minds but his was a markedly different struggle and adversary altogether.

If some six million Tibetans continue to look to the Dalai Lama, who has been out of their immediate physical, cultural and geographical context for so long, it says as much about him as an individual as it does about China’s inability to complete a “harmonious” integration of the Tibetan people into the mainstream society.

Even if one chooses not to subscribe to the view that the Dalai Lama continues to powerfully capture and inspire the Tibetan people’s imaginations, one still has to go by the assertions of Tibet’s Communist Party chief who is saying that the Dalai Lama’s “voice and image” endure and must be erased.

If both have sustained and continued to inspire ordinary Tibetans, it is obvious that it cannot be attributed entirely to the “reactionary propaganda of the splittists.” There is much deeper yearning that propels the ordinary Tibetans to still regard him as their only hope.

Have the Chinese officials such as Chen tried to reason within their own minds that perhaps it is not just the person of the Dalai Lama but the justness of the cause he embodies that might be compelling the Tibetan people to remain steadfast in their convictions toward him?

At one level this is an extraordinary, and perhaps a unique, example of the power of an individual as well as a tribute to the Dalai Lama’s continuing relevance in the Tibetan context. For the past decade or so one of the unspoken elements of the Chinese policy towards Tibet in general and him in particular has been to wait it out until he dies. That inevitability is clearly nearer now than before and yet the Chinese leadership remains so profoundly worried as to strictly control means of communications such as the internet, satellite dishes and telephones. I

If the Dalai Lama’s influence remained intact even in the pre-internet, satellite dishes days, it is debatable whether even a strict state control over communications would do much to stop the Tibetans from somehow keeping him alive in their imaginations in the information age.

(Mayank Chhaya is a journalist and biographer of the Dalai Lama based in Chicago. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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